In the BBC’s series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene, a minister in Ghana’s former NPP government, considers how political jibes can get lost in translation.
We have been having some interesting times here in Ghana recently with language.
It started with the leader of the main opposition National Patriotic Party (NPP), who has a way with words, calling the president of the republic: “Professor Dolittle”.
The president – former university professor John Atta Mills – was not in town and his spokespersons reacted as though he had been called an obscene or vulgar name.
And yet the professor Dolittles or Doolittles that come up when you Google the name are not people that anybody should mind being compared with.
They tend to be famous scientists or interesting characters from English literature, like the doctor who speaks to animals.
Now I can imagine being called, and indeed I have been called worse, names than Dolittle.
But for a week, the full machinery of the state was deployed to convince all Ghanaians that our professor president was not a “professor Dolittle”.
In the middle of all that, an even greater row broke out when the chairman of Mr Atta Mills’ National Democratic Congress (NDC), called a press conference to complain about the judiciary.
A little background is required here: The attorney-general has been having a torrid time in the courts recently – as has been the habit in Ghana every time we are under constitutional rule – and has lost a number of high profile cases.
The NDC chairman claimed that the courts and the judges were biased against his party. He asked the chief justice to “purge the judiciary” or the party would do it for her.
This, in a country where the word “purge” evokes images of unpleasant or nasty medicines for bodily functions.
People do like taking purgatives here but it remains essentially a very private and not public undertaking.
The idea of the ruling party officials lining up the judges and forcing purgatives down their throats or rectums to empty their stomach contents sounded repulsive and tensions went up all round.
A helpful journalist asked the NDC how he intended to do the purging and he, being in his previous life a university psychology lecturer, thought he would employ some fancy language to explain.
“There are many ways of killing a cat,” he said.
In other words they might administer enema to the judges, or give them castor oil or mist alba or a very hot chilli meal or whatever the current popular purgative is that people use.
Not surprisingly all hell broke loose: The party chairman was not only going to administer enema to the judges, he was going to kill them as well!
The problem is that the word “kill” in whatever idiomatic phrase cannot be used in conjunction with judges in this country.
He was happy his opponent referred to him as ‘Professor Dolittle’ rather than ‘Professor Do Nothing’”
We have a history and this ruling party has a history of their antecedents abducting judges who gave rulings they disagreed with and killing them.
And then the NDC chairman also happens to come from a region where people are not cat lovers or to put it less delicately, they eat cats; in other words, they kill cats and they would obviously know all the various ways of killing a cat.
Then the professor president came back into town and told the nation he had no intention of interfering with the judiciary.
No journalist asked him which method of killing a cat he preferred. But then the president comes from a part of the country where cats are not a culinary delicacy.
And as for administering enemas to judges, it might well be that since we have a female chief justice, the delicate operation of giving her an enema was to be left to the attorney-general who is also female.
And the president said he was happy his opponent referred to him as “Professor Dolittle” rather than “Professor Do-Nothing”.
It would seem purging would be outside the scope of work of the professor.
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